Lucretia Mott Speaks: The Essential Speeches and Sermons
Reviewed by Marty Grundy
Edited by Christopher Densmore, Carol Faulkner, Nancy Hewitt, and Beverly Wilson Palmer. University of Illinois Press, 2017. 304 pages. $75/hardcover; $30/eBook.
For those who want to delve deeply into the thinking of Lucretia Mott, this book offers an excellent look into her interrelated causes. Since she did not prepare written speeches but depended on the Spirit to give her the words in the moment—both for political speeches and for messages in meetings for worship—this collection shows how she managed to mention so many of her favorite topics in her talks. The editors have done a thorough job of ferreting out approximately 190 of her lectures, taken down verbatim or summarized, and printed in a wide variety of publications. The list of her venues is wide, geographically and institutionally, including the usual Friends meetings; women’s rights, anti-slavery, and peace associations; and conventions, but also including talks to medical students; the Free Religious Association; several funerals; and the opening of Swarthmore College, which she helped found.
Most Friends are aware of Mott’s tireless advocacy for abolition and women’s rights, and may also be aware of her work for temperance, peace and nonviolence, and education for formerly enslaved people. She supported feminism, prison reform, international cooperation, economic equality, religious freedom, and respectful treatment of Native Americans, while opposing capital punishment. She read widely and often noted current news or opinions such as an 1868 mention of labor’s demand for an eight-hour day. The editors have done authoritative work supplying frequent and very helpful notes.
What might not be so widely understood is how frequently Mott’s strongly held religious views colored and were explicitly stated in so many of her speeches. She demanded, “Bring your religion right into your politics, right into your commerce.” She spoke frequently against laws enforcing the Sabbath, and against the “priesthood” that misused the Bible to oppress blacks and women. She had no patience for the theology of atonement, thus earning her the labels of heretic and infidel, which she wore with pride. Yet, like others of her age, she was very familiar with the Bible, and its phrases and stories found their way, unlabelled, into her speech.
Mott characterized her religion as “practical Christianity.” She distrusted theology, preferring the intersection of individual conscience, human equality, and direct action to guide her own life. She refused to follow the custom in a meeting for worship of rising when anyone knelt to offer a prayer. Although she regarded Friends Book of Discipline as perhaps the most advanced such document of its time, she held out the possibility that it might contain “peculiar passages and obligations which ought to be removed.” Her mantra was to “take truth for our authority, and not authority for truth.” She advocated applying religion to this life, “to every-day practice and every-day necessity, and uprightness and goodness, and to enter into our heaven here.” She believed “free-thinking to be a religious duty,” that proving and trying all things “and holding fast only to that which is good is the great religious duty of our age.” She became increasingly liberal in her religious views through the course of her life. Despite being somewhat of a theological outsider in her Hicksite branch of Friends, she avoided disownment and resignation.
Because this is a collection of speeches, there is necessarily a fair amount of repetition of not only her main themes but also of favorite phrases. Her sermons in meetings for worship differed surprisingly little from her platform speeches. Thus the reader gains a good sense of what it would have been like to hear Lucretia speak. This is the public Mott, not the personal family friend, wife, and mother, who is revealed in personal letters. She was unwavering in her critiques of “priests” or ministers, politicians, and slaveholders. She surprises with sarcasm, always somewhat gently stated. Yet she remained optimistic that ordinary citizens (female and male) could create a more just, egalitarian society. She would probably feel at home among liberal unprogrammed Friends today, while continuing to see the need for unrelenting labor against racism, inequality, injustice, and war.